Earliest Americans were wide-ranging wanderers

by Mary Caperton Morton
Friday, February 19, 2016

A pebble tool made out of serpentine, likely sourced from the coastal cordillera west of Monte Verde. It was made 17,000 to 19,000 years ago. Credit: Tom Dillehay.

About 40 years ago, when the Monte Verde archaeological site in southern Chile was dated to 14,800 years ago, conventional ideas of American anthropology were turned on their heads. Until then, the “Clovis First” theory, which held that modern humans only began populating the Americas from Asia via the Bering land bridge roughly 13,500 years ago, was widely accepted. That people had lived thousands of kilometers farther south more than 1,000 years before the Clovis culture arose came as a shock initially, but the idea, and the Monte Verde site, has gradually become accepted over time.

In a new study in PLOS ONE, scientists took a closer look at the stone tools, cooked plants, animal bones and fire pits uncovered at Monte Verde, and the findings lend support to the idea that the earliest-known Americans lived a nomadic lifestyle.

“We [found] cooking pits associated with burned and unburned bone, and some stone tools scattered very widely across” the site, said lead author Tom Dillehay of Vanderbilt University in a statement. The 39 stone tools found were mostly simple tools, but about 34 percent were made from nonlocal materials, he and his colleagues reported. “Most of them probably came from the coast but some of them probably came from the Andes and maybe even the other side of the Andes,” Dillehay said.

The cooked plants found at the site, mostly grasses and nuts, also supported the idea of a wide-ranging people, as many came from far-away, high-altitude sites. And the bones recovered from fire pits came from large animals, such as llamas and mastodons, which were likely killed far from the site as well. The widely scattered origins of their resources suggests that the Monte Verde residents were nomadic hunter-gatherers who likely camped for a night or two before moving on, the researchers wrote.

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